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Producing an Upright Producer

Note to my faithful and faithless followers: Residents of The Bishop Family Compound have been struck down with horrible colds. For a brief while, I thought I might get away with only a minor cold, but the fates, those witches, conspired against me. This meant that yesterday I had about five get shit done hours, most of which were taken up by my day job. After my get shit done hours were used up, I spent the rest of the day lying around in bed and floating in a fog of misery. This means that the dose I started yesterday morning will be finished today. I ask y’all to read it as if I finished in yesterday, that’s how I’m going to finish writing it.

As y’all know on Wednesdays I try to lift up some Good Words or Good Works by some creative person or team worthy of your attention- either as amusement or food for thought or both. Today, I am cranky as all get out, full of snot and bleeding like a stuck pig. My language will coarse and my tone riled, because I’m not lifting up, I’m getting down on a trend that annoys the fuck out of me. So way more Not So Good Words than Good Words in today’s dose of the Good (and Not So Good) Words.

Exhibit A from February 20, 2013 New York Times: Upright Citizens Brigade Grows By Not Paying Performers by Jason Zinoman

I’m not going to restate Zinoman’s article because Zinoman does a good job of laying out the issues, especially the ways that not paying performers “send[s] a message that improv is the province of the privileged few.” Zinoman quotes “Cyrus McQueen, an African American improviser who studied at Upright Citizens Brigade, ‘One of the reasons you don’t see legions of black performers there is because I don’t know minorities willing or able to work for nothing to get stage time.’”

There is a place for nobody gets paid “amateur” performance (theater, comedy, spoken word, music). Let’s get past the crap label of “amateur” and say community instead, because plenty of “amateurs” are better than many professionals. In these cases, no one gets paid, often no money is collected and when it is, it is used to fund the bare bones operating expenses of a venue or group. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, directed by Mike McShane, is up at the High Springs Community Theater. Word is that the show is stellar. (I plan to go see it closing weekend). No one is getting paid for their excellent acting. Being in a play at a venue like High Springs Community Theater means accepting that you won’t get paid. You don’t get paid, but you also won’t be spending $400 plus bucks on a required acting class before getting the chance to be on stage.

We should acknowledge that the founders of Upright do not get paid a salary. So in that respect they get a bit of my respect. But it remains unclear from the article whether or not the founders take a cut of the profits of this for profit project. If they are bringing home the bacon and not serving some to the performers, well then their goose is cooked in my books (ah, the joys of metaphors shaken, stirred and deep fried). Amanda Palmer deservedly earned heaps of scorn for not budgeting to pay the skilled local performers who joined her on stage during her tour. Upright might deserve to kicked down the street like a old can if they are making money off this project and not sharing.

I want to turn Upright Citizens Brigade upside down and shake some loose change out their pockets. Now it isn’t just because I find most comedic improv to be trite and frankly, boring. It isn’t just because I am aggravated by an excess of phelgm and menstrual blood. No, I am angry as all git out because of dumb ass shit said by Matt Besser, one of the founders.

“I don’t see what they do as labor. I see guys onstage having fun. It’s not a job.”

“We pay our performers just not with money.”

Performing- acting, improv, stand up comedy, singing, playing instruments- is work. Ten minutes of good work on stage takes hours of time off stage. Even if a particular piece comes together quickly the ability to pull it off on stage is because you put the time in. If a space makes money off performances, performers should be paid. Dedicated performers, those who hone their craft, deserve to be paid even if it is just a stipend to cover gas or cab fares or the cost of their dinner that night.

Good performers are not on stage because they want to have fun, though they might have fun. They are on stage because they have a talent, a craft, that they have developed and that people want to see. Without the performers Upright Citizens Brigade would have nothing to offer. As producers that do all the organizing work and take all the risks that makes the venue possible (contracts, space rental, paying utilities) those who run Upright Citizens Brigade deserve a much larger share of any profits.

But they are not very good producers. By good, I mean ethical as well as successful.

Good producers budget to pay the performers. Even when the project is to benefit a nonprofit or some great cause, the producer should try to raise funds to pay small stipends. Because you sure as shit can’t pay the printer with the chance to have some fun. Many causes will ask performers to donate their labor while paying for everything else- graphic design, printing, utilities and space rental. The performers are having fun, so their labor is less valuable than the labor of the designer, the printer or the venue owner? So if the printer has fun, maybe s/he doesn’t need to get paid either.

Good producers charge enough at the door to pay a little something to their performers. Good producers train their audiences to value the work. $5 to 10 a ticket is ridiculously underpriced for New York. The same fuckers don’t bat a eye for the $12 a pop to get into a movie, and that doesn’t include the overpriced popcorn and soda that you know they buy. Hollywood actors don’t get the “we’ll pay you just not with money” bullshit. Some folks get to have “fun” and get paid. Upright Citizens Brigade could raise the prices just a bit to cover a budget for modest stipends for performers for at least some of the shows.

It might be that shows that feature the students fresh off the school yard do not pay. Those performances could be considered an extension of the classroom, but only if there are review classes after the performance to talk about how the audience responded, what the performer did, etc. But at a certain point, performers do not owe Upright Citizens Brigade for the teaching. Besides which, good teachers should help their students figure out how to get paid, not actively create a culture that says improv performers don’t need to be paid cash, ‘cause they are paid by being given a chance to shine.

The artist who shares a corporal address with me produced many events from 2000 to 2006. Now, switching to her voice. One my major regrets is that I didn’t spend more time doing fundraising to cover stipends for performers. It would have force me to be more selective in my performers, which would have improved the quality of the shows. It would have required that I do fewer events which would have made my crash and burn in the mid-2000s not quite as spectacularly damaging. Because I wasn’t brave enough to do the fundraising, I helped perpetuate a culture that undervalues the work of performers, which makes it harder for me to get paid for my performance work. I am not Equity, but I am a professional. I almost never get paid. I am about to start producing again. But this time, I will do the hard work to fundraise enough to cover all my costs including some stipends. It will mean I produce fewer shows, but they and I will be better for it. I aim be a good, successful and ethical, producer. I will self-produce an upright producer.

Now, switching back to Bishop Bishop. I ask my faithful and faithless followers to pray, to make a wish or (for the stone cold atheists) send a supportive email that the artist with whom I share a corporal address succeeds in this oh so important mission. Oh and while, y’all are at it, send a little something to Upright Citizens Brigade. They need all the help they can get.

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  1. The Daily Dose : | February 27, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    […] creative types. I often offer my own thoughts on the work and once in a blue moon I might be a bit critical. But my primary goal is to get you to look at work worthy of your […]

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